Backpacking takes you to magical places that are rarely seen by the human eye, secret spots, and hidden alpine lakes. It shows you the most magnificent displays that nature has to offer, and is gonna cost some real blood, sweat, and tears.
So, how many calories are burned backpacking? That’s a loaded question if there ever was one, there’s no single answer or blanket formula that will determine the exact number of calories you burn.
We have put together a hiking burn rate calculator based on body weight and some medical statistics that will give you a ballpark number to shoot for. It won’t be perfect but it will give you a reasonable idea of how much food to pack.
What is the hiking burn rate?
The burn rate is the number of calories that your body consumes throughout the day, and is something to be considered. There’s a reason thru-hikers at the end of the trail look like they haven’t eaten in weeks, emaciated and tired.
Ballpark your burn rate by putting your pack to practice, take a weekend trip with a full pack that you would use for backpacking. Keep track of the amount of time you hiked at an average pace and your overall weight, gear included.
With this information, you will have a fairly accurate representation of the number of calories that you personally need to consume to avoid losing too much weight.
Calories Burned Per Hour Hiking (including gear)
Stats from Harvard Medical School
You are walking all day long, up and down hills and different types of terrain, all you’re doing is burning calories.
Hiking by nature is a labor intensive activity and the number of calories you need to consume is generally higher when you are on the trail. You do burn calories at a slower pace than other strenuous activities, however, you burn them at a sustained rate all day long.
Here’s a list showing the calories burned per hour according to Harvard Medical School.
There is no exact answer to this question, however, with a little bit of math and assumption, we can come to a fairly close count. Chances are the first trip you’re going to end up with extra food, we all did it. One assumption can be made, you’re going to burn calories at a high rate and a lot of them.
Factors to consider
When determining what your caloric burn rate while taking a hike there is not going to be a one size fits all answer. No calorie counter is going to be perfect and your pace and terrain is in a constant state of flux, making getting a perfect count nearly impossible.
There is a bunch of things to consider, but at the end of the day, just get a ballpark number in the beginning. Pack more than you calculate you’ll need, and learn from there.
We’re talking about how heavy you are, without a backpack, completely naked. You don’t have to go that far obviously, however, the more you weigh the more calories you generally burn (source).
Your backpack is the heaviest piece of gear that you’re going to carry, so try and make it as light as possible. Your shoulders and hips will thank you later.
There’s no wrong way to hike, some hardcore ultralight backpackers go as far as shaving down their toothbrush to save weight. Then, there are the casual backpackers who are more concerned with enjoying the scenery rather than smashing miles.
How long you’re hiking
Hiking is not the most strenuous exercise out there, however, the reason you burn so many calories is due to the fact that you’re walking 8-12 hours a day. Everyday.
The amount of time you spend walking each day is going to have a direct correlation to the number of calories that you burn in a day. It’s pretty simple logic, if you lay around all day, you won’t get anywhere except heavier.
How far you hike
Distance covered is another factor in determining your individual burn rate. If you’re the turtle in the group and you only walk five miles a day you simply burn fewer calories.
How fast you hike
Pace or intensity, whatever you want to call it. Most people find their legs a month or two into the trail, it takes time figuring out what pace works for you.
In the beginning, your instincts want to start out at a breakneck pace, covering as many miles a day as your dreamy mind thinks it can. This method isn’t sustainable for a long term hike, a nice gradual pace is best.
Mountains can suck, hard. Elevation gain is the wildcard in the equation, you can’t really plan too far ahead until you tackle the mountains, hills, and valleys. You burn more calories with more strenuous activity, no shit Sherlock. When elevation gain and descent is in front of you plan on consuming more calories that day or week.
Tips for Staying Energized
They key is to consume at least as much as you burn, and you are going to burn a lot. The great thing about being on the trail is that you can eat whatever you want whenever you want. You basically want to eat all day long without having too much of an impact on the day’s mile count.
Eat healthy carbohydrates
This is easier said than done, however, it’s important to eat clean carbs throughout the day. You burn calories at a fairly high continuous rate and staying energized is going to dictate how much progress you make.
Carbohydrates are the starches, sugars, and fibers found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk. They provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles (source).
Simple carbohydrates are made of one or two sugar molecules and occur naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk. They are broken down quickly in the body and are the rapidly digested for a quick source of energy (source). The majority of your simple carbohydrate intake, ideally, will come from healthy starches like fruit, milk, and vegetables.
Simple carbohydrates also found in refined and processed sugar products like soda, syrup, ketchup, and candy (all the good stuff, of course). Refined or processed sugar does not contain the same vitamins and minerals that are found in fruits and vegetables.
Complex carbohydrates should be referred to as natural carbohydrates, even though they are referencing the chemical structure. When you say complex it almost gives it a negative connotation, when in reality, it’s the better of the two.
These carbs occur in 3 or more molecule complex chains and are naturally found in foods like oatmeal, whole grains, and sweet potatoes (source). They are more nutrient dense than simple carbs and your body takes longer to process them, giving you energy longer.
Add Fat Calories to Meals
An easy way to make up for the lost calories on the trail is to consume foods that are high in fat. Pretty sweet, huh? Not all fats are good for you, unfortunately.
Fat has the most calories per gram at 9(source), making it the pound for pound champ in terms of calories, in other words, energy. It’s a good way to liven up a meal that otherwise may not provide enough energy.
An easy way to add calories to your food is to add things like peanut butter, packets of olive oil, nuts, seeds, and powdered peanut butter. Take these and eat them straight if you’re a savage, or add them to a meal for those much needed extra calories.
Not all fats are going to be healthy fats, things like candy and sugar should NOT be avoided. Just use them with discretion, it’s a nice treat and energy boost that puts a little smile on your face during those difficult moments.
Eat 3 meals a day
Don’t skimp on lunch, it’s often and easily overlooked. Plan on eating about twice the amount of food that you normally would, it’s important to keep up with the number of calories that your body is burning.
According to the Harvard Medical School, a 155-pound person will burn 446 calories per hour while hiking. If you hike for 8 hours a day that equals 3568 calories, in other words, a shitload. This is, of course, subjective to the individual.
If you don’t keep up with your calorie count and supplement that with the proper amount of calories, then you will slowly wither away to nothing. Be sure to take a look at the ingredients, some manufacturers load them up with filler carbs that are a poor source of energy. You’ll end up feeling burnt out after a few hours.
Backpacking is a great way to get outside and play, and having the right amount of food is no biggie. Conversely, if you run out, that would suck.
Use a backpacking burn rate calculator to determine the estimated number of calories that you burn, keeping in mind that the burn rate depends on a number of factors covered earlier. You’ll notice that the estimations for burn rate vary widely, depending on where you look and which numbers you use.
Take a little bit of extra time before your backpacking trip and plan ahead, it will give you peace of mind and some added confidence as you embark on your next journey.